People love to ask me what my favorite cookbooks are. And they are often disappointed when I recommend a slew of science books instead of the artsy sort of cookbooks that belong on a coffee table.
Truly great cooks work smart, not hard, and they share a deep knowledge of how and why ingredients, time, and temperature interact with one another. That knowledge helps you gain control, so you can develop the flavor and texture you want at every step of the cooking process. Having a scientific understanding of food also helps you think on your feet, so that you can correct mistakes that might otherwise feel impossible to fix (like over-whipped egg whites), and avoid future missteps. Most importantly, science-focused cooking books like these will make you a more adept and adaptable cook and arm you with the confidence to take on any challenge in the kitchen.
There are a great number of helpful food science books out there; below you’ll find a few that I’ve relied on and turned to time and time again.
Since McGee’s On Food and Cooking was first published in 1984, this comprehensive book—which is organized by ingredient—has become an essential for both professional chefs and home cooks. Though you may certainly read the book from start to finish, I treat it like an encyclopedia, and visit it whenever I have a question about something specific: How does gluten work? How do you refresh a loaf of stale bread? Why are egg yolks such great emulsifiers? McGee patiently guides his readers through each chapter with thorough explanations and clear illustrations. In the best way possible, it almost feels as if a very cool science teacher is walking you through how to make dinner.
The term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1988 by the chemist Hervé This (pronounced “teess”) and Nicholas Kurti, a physics professor at Oxford University. An entire book about “molecular gastronomy” may sound intimidating, but this book is a page-turner. This—who the writer Aimee Lee Ball called “France’s favorite gastronomic mad scientist”—is charming and humorous, and takes care to use clear and concise language that’s easily understood. The book debunks common myths by diving into how cooking changes food on a molecular level, and also answers frequently-asked questions from home cooks. How do you fix a curdled custard? What cheese and wine combination is best for a fondue that does not turn into a “solid mass lying at the bottom of the pot beneath a greasy liquid”? Why are copper pans better for making fruit preserves? It’s hard not to share This’s enthusiasm for food and science as you flip through this entertaining read.
Hervé This uses Kitchen Mysteries to answer very specific questions that weren’t addressed in his first book, above. In my favorite chapter, titled “A Successful Soufflé?” This explores all the possible ways the dessert can fail and provides three simple rules for a fool-proof soufflé. This one is a handbag-sized book: short and sweet, and a great gift for any passionate home cook.
Shirley Corriher’s BakeWise will equip you with everything you need to bake beautiful, delicious pastries. Corriher—a biochemist who is also trained in the French culinary arts—breaks down all the science needed to explain why each of the recipes in her book works. Her Deep, Dark Chocolate Cake, for example, uses Dutch process cocoa and baking soda to alkalize the chocolate, which results in a cake that’s almost black. “My goal in BakeWise,” she writes, “is to give you tools—information that you can use to make not just successful baked goods, but outstanding baked goods.”
Levy Beranbaum has two degrees in food science and is the genius behind the reverse-creaming method. Though The Cake Bible is not strictly a science book, Levy Beranbaum provides handy tips on how to successfully make each of her cakes; she includes an “Understanding” section in most of the recipes, where she explains why the recommended method works best. If you want to become a better baker and understand how to make the most flavorful, tender cakes, The Cake Bible is the book for you.